Itach Ma’aki – Jewish and Arab Women Lawyers for Social Justice
By Oshrat Ben Shimshon
The current Israeli government’s antidemocratic attempts to undermine the judiciary are nothing short of an earthquake. They pose a direct threat to the hard-won legal rights that feminist organizations have been fighting for since Israel’s establishment 75 years ago.
That’s why we at Itach Ma’aki – Women Lawyers for Social Justice are sounding the alarm. Itach and Ma’aki mean “with you” in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively, and we have been on the frontlines advocating for women’s rights since 2001. We have never seen such universal threats to women’s rights, LGBTQ+ people, and minorities in Israel, as those posed by the current, ultra-rightwing government. And if Jewish women’s rights are in danger, then the danger for Arab women and women in other disadvantaged groups is far graver.
Israel has no constitution ensuring basic civil rights and the lack of clear separation between religion and state creates further challenges for women’s rights. As a result, these rights – achieved primarily via petitions to the High Court of Justice and suits brought before other courts – are particularly fragile. It’s no wonder that tens of thousands of women are going out to the anti-government protests, many dressed in red cloaks a la The Handmaid’s Tale and fighting for the future of Israeli democracy and their future as equal citizens.
Women’s rights in Israel are chronically at risk – disadvantaged women’s rights even more so – and often the courts are their last resort. Itach Ma’aki is highly concerned that the politicization of the judicial system by the government would critically damage the status of women and the rights they’ve gained.
Our organization was founded to give a voice to disadvantaged women, who endure discrimination based on nationality, ethnicity, geographic location, and socio-economic factors. Itach Ma’aki stands up for these “invisible” women, who are represented by no political party and are therefore more vulnerable and whose rights are unprotected. This includes women who are Arab, ultraorthodox, LGBTQ+, single moms, and working women, who earn less than the minimum wage and consequently are generally unable to pay for legal defense when their rights are violated. The organization operates out of three regional branches – Haifa (north), Tel Aviv (central), and Be’er Sheva (south).
Itach Ma’aki was created by a group of Israel’s leading feminist lawyers to achieve justice and gender equality for these diverse groups of women. Realizing that each group is unique, they tailored their approach accordingly. Over the years, Arab women lawyers joined the organization, bringing their vital perspective as Palestinian citizens of Israel. Subsequently, we added the Arabic word “Ma’aki” to “Itach”, our original name. In recent years, we’ve become even more representative – our board and staff are 50% Jewish women and 50% Arab women.
ITACH MA’AKI WORKS IN FOUR MAIN INTERCONNECTED SPHERES
Sphere 1: The Hotline
Through our hotline, we offer free legal aid related to labor law and National Insurance, Israel’s version of Social Security. We provide free legal consultation, support, and representation in three languages – Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian – to roughly 1,700 disadvantaged women per year. The fundamental premise of our service is that, if we don’t help these women, they won’t be able to realize their rights, since their economic status doesn’t allow them to pay legal fees. Through the individual cases we take on via the hotline, we monitor wider legal trends that we then address through political advocacy at the institutional level.
Center for the rights of Negev Bedouin women
At our southern branch in Be’er Sheva, we established a center for Bedouin women’s rights, where we provide aid designed specifically for this population, which includes women living in polygamous marriages. We represent the women in their dealings with the authorities, offer workshops to improve women’s skills and employability, counsel women who are running for local office, support women who have been victims of violence, and more.
Safety for women in the public space
We have recently been contacted by many Arab women who are frightened about being publicly identified as Arab out of fear that they, or their children, will be harmed. Sometimes the fear of identification stems from their traditional attire; other times it’s because of their accent. The uptick in such reports, and the steep rise in anti-Arab violence, come in the wake of the racist incitement practiced by the leaders of the far-right political parties.
We were recently contacted by an Arab woman, M., who said she experienced racism. M. is well-educated, with three academic degrees, and is now studying law in the town of Tzfat (Safed). Here is what M. reported to us: One day, as she left school, she passed by a group of rightwing demonstrators, who were protesting the construction of dorms there. She believes they were upset over the possibility that the dorms would be used to house Arab students. M. was wearing a hijab, and when the rightwing group identified her as Arab, she told us, they began to direct racist chants toward her, including “Death to Arabs”. She related to us that Israeli police were on site and witnessed the incident, but did not offer the assistance that one would expect, even though racism is a criminal offense under Israeli law. In the end, as M. was making her way to the parking lot, she said she noticed that two of the demonstrators were following her and continuing to yell racist epithets. Fortunately, a friend happened to be passing by and drove M. safely to her car.
For the next two weeks, M., who is a peace and shared society activist, was too fearful and anxious to set foot outside her home. But then she reached out to Itach Ma’aki and, at her request, we contacted the media to publicize the incident. M. was interviewed on primetime radio, alongside an Itach Ma’aki attorney, who discussed the letter that had been sent to the police commissioner, demanding that he deal harshly with any anti-Arab violence and racism.
As a Jewish-Arab NGO, we believe it’s crucial that the public space be safe for all women.
Sphere 2: Public Campaigns in Support of Women’s Rights
Itach Ma’aki provides legal support to public campaigns waged by a wide variety of women’s groups. We believe in encouraging women’s empowerment and leadership and motivating them to take collective action. So, our role is not to conduct these campaigns for them, but to provide the legal and media expertise that any public campaign needs to achieve its goals.
Palestinian women citizens of Israel
One group whose rights are repeatedly violated are Palestinian women who are Israeli citizens. One of Itach Ma’aki’s key accomplishments has been to start integrating a gender-based perspective into the government’s five-year economic plan for the Arab community (“Resolution 550”, passed in 2021 by the Bennett-Lapid “change government”). The aim is to remove obstacles impeding Arab women – in the labor market, in academia, regarding public transportation, and more.
Based on empirical research and the knowledge we’ve accumulated over decades of activism, we offered specific policy proposals. And we asked to include women’s organizations in the plan’s development and implementation, and for the latter to incorporate gender-based measurables. In response to our request, then-Minister for Social Equality, Merav Cohen, established a team of women experts to help bring a gender-based approach into Plan 550. Attorney Maha Shehade Switat of Itach Ma’aki is a member of the team and is authoring its report.
In recent years, we have also been supporting a group of ultraorthodox (Haredi) women, who submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice against the Agudat Israel party. The petition seeks to end the discrimination in the ultraorthodox party’s bylaws, which prohibit women’s membership. Itach Ma’aki filed an amicus brief on behalf of women’s organizations in support of the brief submitted by Nivcharot: Haredi Women’s Movement. The High Court ruled in favor of the petitioners, and annulled the offending section of the party’s bylaws.
Currently, we are also contributing to two lawsuits against Haredi employers, providing expert legal testimony on the exploitation of Haredi women.
In Israel, single mothers who expand their participation in the workforce are entitled to State subsidies for childcare frameworks, including afterschool programs, camps, and clubs. Thanks to the involvement of Itach Ma’aki and our collaboration with the Labor Ministry, we put together a highly successful program which factored in these women’s unique needs.
The program was so successful, however, it created huge demand until its budget was exhausted and subsidies were frozen. For five months, we worked with the single mothers to reactivate it, leading a legal effort and media campaign to put the issue on the public agenda and generate political pressure on Knesset members to reinstate the program. Our campaign was rewarded: This past May, the program was reopened after a five-month freeze, the subsidies were renewed, and an even larger budget was approved for 2024.
Sphere 3: Policy and Legislation Advocacy
Itach Ma’aki also works in the courts and the Knesset, and in cooperation with government ministries and local governments in order to influence public policy at both the national and local levels. We seek to change policy that is discriminatory and exclusionary toward women and to improve women’s standing in both the Jewish and Arab communities. We focus on issues that can have significant impact for large groups of women, or all women.
Ensuring women’s representation on public bodies
Via petitions to the High Court of Justice, Itach Ma’aki has been successful in efforts to uphold the statutory obligation (in the Women’s Equal Rights Law) to have women represented on governmental bodies. The court ruled in our favor regarding the inclusion of women on the Turkel Inquiry Commission that investigated the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, and we have used this ruling to bring women onto a number of key committees as well as the team of experts appointed to address the COVID crisis. That team originally was made up of men only. But the pressure created by a new petition we submitted to the High Court led to the establishment of a replacement team in which women were the majority, and that included representation for ultraorthodox and Arab women.
“A City for All (Women, Too)”
On the local level, Itach Ma’aki has developed an innovative program called “A City for All (Women, Too)”, through which we work with local governments to incorporate gender perspectives into the decision-making process. Via the program, we get women involved in municipal projects and help them grow into local leaders, encourage local governments to help women take full advantage of their rights, and integrate a gender-based approach into local budget choices and municipal activities generally.
“A City for All (Women, Too)” was first rolled out in Taibeh, an Arab city, and in the “mixed” Jewish-Arab cities of Haifa and Acco (Acre). In partnership with their mayors, we established a “pact”, and an action plan in cooperation with all municipality divisions, to promote gender equality. And we developed a pioneering multisystem model for preventing domestic violence.
Sphere 4: Cooperation with International Coalitions
Itach Ma’aki is at the forefront of two Israeli coalitions – one to implement UN Security Council resolution 1325, which stresses the need to fully and equally involve women in global peace and security efforts; and the other to fulfill the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which offers a roadmap to a better, more egalitarian world.
UN Security Council Resolution 1325 Coalition
Itach Ma’aki leads a coalition of dozens of women’s organizations and civil society groups to implement UN Security Council resolution 1325, and we have put forward a joint action strategy to instill the resolution’s spirit throughout the national government and public service. We work to increase the representation of women from diverse groups at the center of peace and security decision making and infuse a gender perspective into the peace and security discourse. This work has included a series of online events on topics such as creating Arab-Jewish partnership in the feminist sphere, feminist foreign policy, women and informal negotiations, and the intersection of gender, security, and climate.
Training women to negotiate with a gender perspective
We were the first to introduce a program to train Israeli women to conduct diplomatic negotiations through a gender lens. The idea arose due to the scant number of women who represent Israel in diplomatic talks and in the secret, unofficial “Track 2” contacts between Israel and Palestine. The absence of women in such discussions means that the needs of the whole populace, including its mosaic of women, do not receive full expression. Adding the gender-based approach of Jewish and Arab women broadens the concept of “security”, which states are obliged to provide their citizens, and increases the likelihood of reaching sustainable agreements.
More than 50 Jewish and Palestinian women with senior roles in Israeli society have taken part in this training so far. We received over 300 applications from highly qualified women, indicating that, contrary to popular belief, there is an appetite for such a program and a willingness to engage with peacebuilding from a gender perspective. The sessions, conducted in foreign embassies, have imparted practical knowledge and tools, thus enabling the participants to be part of any future negotiation – which will ensure that decision making includes a gender-based point of view.
We recently launched a field trip series that ties resolution 1325 to the realities in Israel. One of the trips was to the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev, where we discussed home demolitions and their consequences for the village’s women, who shared how the demolitions had impacted their lives. One remark still echoes: “When they demolish a home, they don’t just destroy walls – they destroy an entire family, especially the children’s future.”
Another trip was to the Masafer Yatta section of the West Bank: The Israeli army has declared it a firing zone, and ordered its Palestinian residents expelled, even though their families have been there for over one hundred years. After the residents’ petition to the High Court was rejected, numerous organizations, including Itach Ma’aki, have been working to prevent the expulsion. We co-authored a report, analyzing the expulsion through a gender lens, and produced an accompanying campaign to tell the stories of Masafer Yatta’s women and illustrate expulsion’s implications for women and girls. As in any conflict zone, women experience expulsion differently from men and pay a higher price.
2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
Itach Ma’aki is co-leading a diverse coalition of more than 50 Israeli civil society organizations – which focus, respectively, on issues of gender equality, climate, health, education, and social justice – to implement the UN’s 2030 Agenda. By building intersectional collaborations, we seek to influence local, national, and international policymaking in order to address these issues.
The coalition employs a variety of tools to involve the public, including lectures, seminars, published research, reports and position papers – including a position paper we led on, which assembled civil society’s recommendations for implementing the 2030 Agenda’s targets in Israel. The paper was submitted to the UN by the Israeli government.
We are also working with local authorities and NGOs in the Western Negev to support the implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We are currently helping three grassroots initiatives promoting these SDGs, particularly gender equality and environmental sustainability. We have also established three working groups using the SDG lens – on gender-based violence, the status of the Bedouin community, and energy poverty; each will produce a policy paper offering solutions for their respective issues.
Itach Ma’aki makes extensive use of mass media and social media to raise consciousness about women’s rights and gender equality and how public actions impact various subgroups of women. We seek to influence the public, political, and communications agenda by exposing the general public to women’s voices from a wide array of sectors.
Oshrat Ben Shimshon serves as the Spokesperson and Director of Communications Strategy for Itach Ma’aki – Women Lawyers for Social Justice.